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Preparing to Beat the Holiday Blues

Preparing to Beat the Holiday Blues

Local Physician Offers Advice on Overcoming Holiday Stress

The holidays are touted as a season of joy and happiness—but is that really true for all individuals?

No, says Dr. Seema Sehgal, a psychiatrist at Washington Township Medical Foundation department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science. “The holidays are a high-stress period for many people, often caused by financial pressures, family issues, the loss of a loved one, or just the need to ‘keep up with the Jones’ in terms of socializing, gift-giving, or even something as simple as sending out holiday cards.”

Some worry that they must give gifts to friends and family members—even if they can’t afford to do so. Others feel pressured to attend holiday parties when they’d rather stay at home or have a quiet dinner or gathering with close friends. And this year, COVID-19 is still a factor. Some family members may be concerned about gatherings. There may be additional concerns about keeping the most vulnerable family members safe.

“We fall into this trap of feeling we must have the ‘perfect’ holiday just like at other times of the year when we feel we must have the ‘perfect’ vacation or the ‘perfect’ dinner party,” she says.

To get out of the holiday pressure cooker, Dr. Sehgal recommends taking time to think about what aspect of the holidays is the most stressful for you and, conversely, what do you like best about the holiday season. “Ask yourself: what do I really want to remember about this holiday season; what is the one activity that will bring me the most pleasure?”

It is important to be mindful of the fact that different people experience different emotions during the holidays. For some, it’s challenging to join the annual family holiday dinner with a difficult relative. For others, it’s the stress of overspending because of the expectation of gift-giving. The season is the time many feel the loss of a loved one more intensely as memories of happier times are recalled. “Not everyone is in a celebratory mood and we need to be mindful of that,” Dr. Sehgal notes.

She suggests sitting down well in advance of the holidays to develop a plan on how to approach and manage the season. Encourage your family members to think about what it is they would most like to remember about this holiday season when, a month later, they look back on the holiday. “Such an exercise can help children understand that they can’t have it all during the holidays. We all have to make choices as to where to invest our time, energy and resources—this includes children.”

This approach can be helpful all year long to relieve stress from the pressures of work, family and other obligations, Dr. Sehgal adds. “Anxiety is the voice of our subconscious telling us we are stressed; we must take time to listen to our bodies and minds and practice moderation in what we take on.”

Dr. Sehgal suggests that the self-examination of the holidays be carried over into other aspects of one’s life. The same tools that were used to look closely at holiday expectations can be used to reduce anxiety and pressure throughout the year.

The key to making enduring change is to make small changes that are practiced consistently. “A common mistake is to attempt to make big changes all at once that are difficult, if not impossible, to maintain throughout the year. Small steps are the ones that in the long run can result in change that reduces unhappiness caused by stress and anxiety.”